One of the things I so love about travel and touring is getting a much more powerful sense of history; standing in and on the places where events and lives long past have happened, whether grand or insignificant, utterly changes my understanding of those people and occurrences. My first trip overseas, that Grand Tour I was so privileged to take in college with my older sister, was an awakening I never expected. I hoped the trip would be a cure for my sophomore blues, and indeed it was, beyond anything I could have planned or dreamt before, but more than that I was startled by how connected I felt to history.
The drizzly and cold autumn day when we visited Canterbury Cathedral was atmospheric enough in its way, but I remember standing on stone steps worn into a soft bowl by the thousands of footsteps that had passed over them in the centuries of its existence, looking up into a palely gold ray from a lamp, seeing the motes of dust whirling in it, and feeling that time itself was floating down around me in delicate pieces, that the spirit of every person who had ever set foot on that same smooth hollow in the stone was present there with me in that very moment. It was almost as though I could hear their voices and see the scenes of the past play out in the faint gloom around me, all overlapping and yet perfectly present. I felt my own place in the whole of the human timeline in an entirely different way than I ever expected, tinier than ever, yet surprisingly more concrete and tangible.
This was reinforced later in the same journey many times, as we passed through or visited (not necessarily in this order) England, Italy, France, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland and stood in the very footprints of many a person, going down the winding passages and cobbled side-streets that had seen multitudes of significant moments long since fled. As this was the first time I visited Norway, the rooting ground of my ancestors from every branch of my family tree, it is no surprise in retrospect that many of those potent realizations came to me in that place—but as usual, hindsight is ever so much clearer than was my youthful wisdom in those days. It was moving, more meaningful than I can express, to get to know the relatives in Norway with whom my family had maintained contact: my maternal grandfather’s sisters and brother-in-law, nieces and nephew. These were days before cheap telephonic long distance, let alone email and internet communiqués, so we had only briefly even met most of these people when they visited America once in my younger years, yet they not only took us in as visitors, Tante Anna and Onkel Alf kept my sister and me with them for a full month and took us to see the family’s two longtime farms, the graves where many of our ancestors were sleeping underfoot. This was incredibly touching, a genealogical history lesson, but the more so because it was taught by the eldest of our remaining family there.
What moved me the most, in fact, was when on arriving in Oslo at our mother’s cousin’s home before we even came down south to be with his parents, we explored the great city a little on our own during the days, while he was at work and his wife and children off having their own day of adventures. It was all so humbling and so magical to feel for the first time that I understood a tiny bit more of my own family lineage and how our people fit into the larger world. We did visit many of the obligatory and famous tourist sites, knowing that there was no direct link to our ancestors, only cultural ones. So I was quite stunned when we visited the Viking Ship Museum and, standing before these ancient vessels, I was absolutely electrified with a sense of shared history coursing through my veins. My forebears were undoubtedly humble subsistence farmers, not the bold and violent and adventurous Viking strain we know through film and television, never mind through the great Sagas—but I felt for the first time something connecting me to those long-gone people all the same.
By now I have traveled a fair amount more. I have been on this planet more than twice as long, and I think I might even be a little bit wiser through my experiences in that life than I was back then. But I approach every narrow stone passageway, every weathered door, every window with its rippling antique panes presenting everything that’s beyond them like a warped post-impressionist fiction of itself, I expect to learn something not only about what is there in front of me and around me, but what is inside me. And I know that I will learn something, too, about how I fit into that larger, and ever so mysterious, world if I am wise and patient and alert enough to notice it. So much has gone by. So much remains ahead, yet unknown.